Three keys to work-life balance

Last week, I was asked to speak to young professionals about work-life balance, so I have been pondering this topic a lot. How do you juggle both a full-time, demanding and exacting career and the often-contradictory demands of raising little human beings to become productive members of society? To be honest, I think the “secret” is that all of us are just winging it, really, and we are creating and maintaining balance as we go – even if it doesn’t appear that way to others from the outside. Parenting and careers are all about change. Just when you think you have achieved the perfect balance, something changes – your child starts potty training, enters puberty, adjusts to a new school, or gets chosen for a school team. You earn a promotion and gain new responsibilities, move offices (which affects your commute), or start a new job. Your spouse has to travel more or has a change in health condition. Older family members need care and help in a way they haven’t before.

The old cliché holds true: the only constant is change. In such a fast-paced world, the secret to work-life balance is finding and keeping your center as much as you can, and recognizing that while eddies of change may cause your lifeboat to wobble and swirl around a little, overall, you are still moving towards success as a parent, as a professional, and as a human being.

I feel most happy, fulfilled, and productive when I intentionally practice these three focusing principles:

  1. Invest in yourself. Invest intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. For me, this means ensuring that I continue to learn and grow as a professional and hold myself to my own high standards at work. This means that I take time to go to the gym, eat breakfast, and make sure I get as much sleep as I need – even if the house isn’t clean or I don’t make those perfectly crafty handmade Pinterest doodads for the child’s end-of-year class party (see principle #3). It means that I put away my smartphone at dinnertime and snuggle with my children as I read to them at night. I take time for date night or movie night with my husband, for girls’ night out, and for trying new activities. I don’t always achieve everything all at once, but I always try to come back to what I need to improve in myself. I find that this makes me a more patient and loving parent and partner, and a more focused and effective professional.
  1. Accept help where it’s offered and available. This includes help at home from your partner, family, and children (a 6-year-old can put dishes in the dishwasher! A 10-year-old can do laundry!). Accepting help also involves utilizing resources available to you as a professional – there are options that help you work more effectively. These can include taking advantage of flexible work hours, delegating certain tasks to administrative professionals or work-study students, letting go of the need to micromanage (again, see principle #3!), and learning how to use organizational tools such as email filtering and calendar management. Are there resources and benefits available at work, such as lactation rooms, childcare subsidies, wellness programs, or on-site daycare that you can take advantage of? It’s also tremendously helpful to hire others to do tasks like cleaning the house and mowing the lawn. Most universities have lists of students who are willing to do odd jobs, and some communities maintain lists of young people who will help with chores for a reasonable price. As my children have grown older, I’ve found a mutually supportive network of fellow professional parents – we often share driving duty to ferry our children to school events, or split vacation days to cover childcare during snow days and teacher workdays.
  1. Let the small things go. You will have to decide what “small things” mean to you, as everyone has different things they deem important. I have found that many a cause of stress can be traced back to my own unrealistic expectations of myself and the fear of being judged by society. The small things I have let go include having the perfectly clean house, the perfectly coiffed hair, and the perfectly dressed child. A recent feud that I let go was ensuring that my child left the house wearing two matching socks; I learned to embrace her individuality. I have had to let some career opportunities go because I was not willing to take a job that involved a lot of travel or relocation to a different state. But being at peace with those decisions to let go have, in the longer term, led to greater happiness and fulfilment both career-wise and family-wise.

When I find myself stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious, I try to come back to these three principles. Take care of myself. Accept help. Shed unnecessary burdens. And if all else fails, just wing it.

Sharlini Sankaran, PhD, is executive director of REACH NC, a statewide program that involves 20 universities and multiple economic development and nonprofit agencies. She is the parent of a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old and lives in Durham, NC with her husband, children, a black cat, and five fat chickens.